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BEIJING 2008: THIS CLOSE

Chris Mueller

Just don't give her the look. Katie McGregor has seen enough of it.

"You know when something sad happens, and people just have that look on their face like they don't know what to say to you? And you wish they wouldn't say anything at all?"

McGregor is a 30-year-old distance runner with plenty of stamina, but after a month on the receiving end of the look she's tired of it. No, she won't be in Beijing; she just missed qualifying. But she'll deal, same as she did in 2004. People pat her on the back for being gracious after finishing fourth at June's track trials. In online clips of postrace interviews, she's all calm, class and perspective. But, yeah, it hurt. Still hurts.

Katie McGregor looks like the girl next door: fiery red hair, pale complexion, face dotted with freckles. But she has the ability to run very fast for a very long time. Her best of 31 minutes 21 seconds in the 10,000 meters is just 47 seconds off the U.S. record. She's no celebrity, but she earns a nice living racing on roads and the track. She travels the world and lives in a suburban Minneapolis apartment with a pool and garage space for her Honda Accord. She's respected and popular in track circles, a national champion on the track in 2005 and on the road in 2006 and an annual fixture near the top of U.S. women's distance running.

But during the 16 days of the Olympics, McGregor is one of us, surfing the TV and the web for stories and results from the Games. She won't be racing at the Bird's Nest in Beijing because, well, it's complicated. And a little heartbreaking.

Or maybe it's simple. And uplifting.

You first have to go back to 2004. Heading into the Olympic trials in Sacramento, McGregor looked like a good bet to make the team for Athens. The top 10,000 runner, Deena Kastor, was likely to opt for the marathon, even if she qualified in the 10K. All McGregor had to do was place in the top four and run faster than 31:45 to meet the Olympic A standard, a minimum level of performance required for qualification in timed events. She made good on the first part, finishing fourth, but faded late in the race and was timed at 32:33.87. "I was really angry," she says, "because I failed myself."

She rebounded with a career year in 2005, winning nationals in the 10,000 and representing the Stars and Stripes at worlds, where she finished 14th. In 2007 she was 13th at worlds. This year, McGregor talked excitedly with peers about Beijing. Blake Russell, her friend from the Reebok track club in Minnesota, already qualified in the women's marathon. Best friend Carrie Tollefson, who ran the 1,500 in Athens and hoped to qualify for Beijing, repeatedly assured McGregor that 2008 was her year. It certainly looked that way. "Everything was going well," says McGregor. "I didn't have any injuries. I was having the best workouts I've ever had." She hit the A standard well ahead of the trials.

But as she got into the thick of the racing season, she felt sluggish. "It wasn't making sense," says McGregor. "It wasn't working out the way it should have been." She was fit but didn't have the extra gear she counted on late in races. Heading into the trials, McGregor knew she wouldn't be able to keep pace with Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan, the class of the field, so she adopted a conservative plan. Only four runners had achieved the A standard. McGregor knew that others in the race had the ability, but conditions in Eugene—78˚ and humid—were not conducive to fast times. So she entered the race with one goal: finish ahead of Molly Huddle, the fourth runner with the standard.

The race's dull early pace seemed to vindicate McGregor's tactics. "I was thinking, I'll just play my cards right, keep track of people and put myself in good position, which I did." Except McGregor didn't bank on Amy Yoder Begley's turning in the race of her life. With Flanagan and Goucher well in front, Yoder Begley took off on a quest for the A standard, blazing through the final 800 meters in less than 2:20 to finish third. McGregor was fourth, 46 seconds back, and at the finish she admits thinking, I hope she missed the standard. "It stinks. You don't wish something bad for another runner," she says. "But one of us is going to be happy, and one of us is going to be sad. Everyone was watching the scoreboard to see the times go up."

The finish order flashed on the board, and Yoder Begley's time was 1.4 seconds faster than the standard. McGregor felt horrible, but she was also happy for Yoder Begley. Back in 2004, in a futile attempt to run the qualifying standard before the Athens Games, McGregor entered a tiny track meet in California. Yoder Begley set pace for her. "She was there to help me," McGregor says. "This was karma."

She met the media later that evening, and that's when McGregor first saw The Look, the expression that's best translated as "I'm sorry for what happened. Are you going to fall apart?" But instead of tears, the reporters got an upbeat assessment of what a fine moment this was for U.S. distance running. "I felt like I failed myself in 2004. But this time I did what I needed to do, and Amy ran well," McGregor says. "I tried to put a happy face on it. You don't want to be Debbie Downer and feel sorry for yourself. It's not like I'm the only person to finish fourth."

She's right. A lot of athletes just miss the Olympics, but how they handle the disappointment varies (see below). Hollie Vise was one of the last gymnasts cut from the 2004 team and didn't train for the next two years. "I had a hard time being motivated," she says. "After training for so many years, I wanted to hang out with my friends and have a piece of pizza once in a while."

Lisa Rainsberger, who finished fourth at the marathon trials three times and at the triathlon trials once, says, "I always set new goals after the trials, to help get a sense of meaning. Looking back, I don't have regrets and can live life fine. The fact that Katie is training means she'll be okay." Rainsberger had a daughter in 1998 and named her Katie, in honor of McGregor, a fellow Michigan grad.

Sure, McGregor would rather spend August in Beijing, but she'll be fine in Minnesota. She took three days off after the trials, then started running again. She has already run a couple of local races, is contemplating a marathon in the fall and wants to qualify for worlds next year. "There's always something to focus on," she says.

As for Beijing, McGregor's watching as much of the Games as possible—"all the sports, not just track and field." This is part of the healing process. Running is her job, and McGregor holds no one accountable except herself. Failing to make the team doesn't change that, doesn't change why she's an athlete or why she chose this life. She'll watch the Olympics from home in Minnesota, then get up and run in the morning. For herself.

It helps that McGregor also has balance. An English major in college, she's in two book clubs and lines her shelves with Cormac McCarthy, Zadie Smith and Sylvia Plath. How the Scots Invented the Modern World is on her coffee table, bookmarked. She loves Sinatra and has a Rat Pack poster in her living room. That's down the wall from a photo of boyfriend and former Minnesota Gopher hockey player Charlie Wasley. The two are finishing brewing their first batch of homemade beer.

In other words, McGregor has a life. So she seems the ideal person to engage in a chat about why there's so little honor in coming close, in working hard but not getting the prize. But she cuts the conversation off before it starts. "You ever see Talladega Nights? If you ain't first, you're last. That's kinda how it is. Except for the trials, where the top three are great, and fourth is the biggest loser."

Sounds harsh, but it's reality. Just as real? The need to accept the loss in order to move on. "I was in denial for a long time," says McGregor. "I wasn't going to let it get me down. Then I realized I needed to let myself be upset so the healing process could begin." A few weeks after the trials she spoke on the phone with Tollefson, who also failed to make the team, in the 1,500. That was the first time—and the last—that McGregor cried about the trials.

McGregor is young for a distance runner and says she has "unfinished business" in the 10,000. She promises to return for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. "I failed," she says, "but I'm not a failure."

The Olympic spirit, the one sometimes obscured by the flag-waving and logo-flaunting, still exists. But not always at the Games. As much as she hates The Look, McGregor appreciates the sentiments and support of people who've reached out to her since the trials—like the guy from her high school who called to say he was rooting for her. "It's nice to know that, yeah, I'm a good runner, but people think I'm also a good person," she says. "That's the positive thing to take away from it. I still have time to improve and make another team and get better. I'll just continue to be the type of person I am and hopefully it'll work out, at some point, in the end."

She laughs. "One of these days. Gotta happen. It's meant to be. Sometime. Just … don't … know … when."

READ FIRST PERSON ACCOUNTS OF OTHER ATHLETES WHO WERE THIS CLOSE, HERE.